“And you know something’s happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones” – Ballad of a Thin Man, Bob Dylan, recorded August 2, 1965
For years and often with startling prescience, Bob Dylan wrote songs about what Mr. Jones did not know, understand, or see coming. Mr. Jones, of course, is us — you and me.
Facebook is now blocking seven high-profile individuals who it says violate its policy concerning “dangerous individuals and organizations.” Never mind, for the sake of this column, who the individuals are or what their organizations stand for or advocate. Nor is the point that an even higher profile individual who is also abusing social media and arguably causing far greater damage, is not being blocked.
The point is that the speed at which we are approaching a paradigm-shifting rupture in our society seems to be accelerating as we approach something along the lines of a socio-tech-info Chernobyl-like meltdown. That is, the incompatibility of an open and unencumbered internet and “governance” by any country seems to be approaching the breaking point.
Technology has evolved at a far greater rate of speed than has our ability as a society to adapt to and manage it, and the gap is growing. At least it feels like that to me.
Who should be deciding who deserves access to the means of communication? Mark Zuckerberg or Donald Trump? The Supreme Court or Rupert Murdoch? Congress or Google? Government or the private sector? Who should be responsible for placing limits on the collection of personal data and the uses of that data? What are the consequences if we get that one wrong?
Whose role is it to be judge, jury and head censor? Right now, the private sector understands clearly where this trend is headed and is ramping up their billions to manage the outcome. The problem is, though, that they really don’t know for sure “what is happening”; the only thing they know is that if they don’t take action, action will be imposed upon them.
Consider the fact that the greatest means of communication in the history of the world (Facebook) is controlled by a kid who, ironically, was only born in 1984, and the influence — both intentional and unintended (2016 elections) this 35-year-old techie holds. And he is faced with figuring out how to manage this behemoth that he has created. I am not sure that anyone has “the” answer to Zuckerberg’s dilemma.
The nature of the problems we face defy known or easy answers. Yet we must have answers because the alternative is total chaos.
Consider the policy decisions confronting us: artificial intelligence, genetically modified food, industrial-strength out-of-control personal data collection and tracking, CRISPR-enabled gene editing, the real “star wars” a new age of primarily tech-driven wealth creation far beyond anyone’s — even Dylan’s — imagination and the Grand Canyon-scale, out-of-balance distribution and concentration of wealth and the unhealthy and destabilizing concentration of power and influence that wealth creates.
Think how all this has impacted the world already. Think about the Arab Spring and the half dozen governments that were ultimately overturned or severely compromised by, to a large degree, social media access. Think about the veracity and credibility of the institutions that hold our very democracy together — our system of voting, those institutions that form the checks and balances that protect all of us from tyranny and how those institutions have been deliberately and inadvertently compromised and seem now to be holding on by not much more than a thread.
One cannot avoid reaching the conclusion that we are in a dangerous place and that we must craft the most prudent and wisest response to our condition. We must re-learn how to cooperate with each other. We must all have skin in the game. We must collectively take the lead, but we also must be led by an incredibly wise and capable person – someone with the ability to process and manage incredibly complex issues and who can unite us. I don’t know if this person exists.
The issues are not going away, and allowing the trends to just take their own course is not a rational option. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t think anyone knows, but we have to get this right.